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MEXICO CITY (Reuters Life!) - Enterprising hustlers in this congested capital city cornered the street parking racket long ago but their monopoly could unravel as officials get tough and automatic parking meters multiply.
The curbside parking toll is a ploy conceived by the city's franeleros, or 'rag boys', known to signal to drivers looking for parking spaces by frantically waving a tattered cloth.
In the city's leafy neighborhoods, street parking has been divvied up by franeleros who guard their patch with the watchfulness of a prairie cowboy minding a herd of cattle.
"My customers know they can trust me - that I won't leave their car unattended," said Patricia Martinez, who daily patrols the streets of Polanco, an upscale shopping district, and laid claim to her stretch of asphalt a dozen years ago.
At night, many urban side streets are littered with steel drums, concrete blocks and boulders that mark a franelero's turf. In the morning, the debris is pulled away as the franelero parcels out parking spaces and collects a small tribute - typically a few pesos per hour.
Officials have long tolerated the petty extortion while cops have enriched themselves with small-time shakedowns of franeleros, also known as 'viene, viene' or "come on!", but urban leaders now want the valets to smarten up.
Mexico City franeleros are supposed to register with authorities and some neighborhoods expect the grifters to wear vests or sit through civics class. An expansion of coin-fed parking meters could also cut into the franelero's trade.
"They need to understand that informal work such as this cannot continue," said Erwin Crowley, a spokesman for the city's urban development office.
Mayor Marcelo Ebrard, a bicycle booster who wants more commuters to pedal to work, hopes the steel-headed parking meters will discourage drivers and raise revenue for quality-of-life projects.
"In time, these folks could become part of the formal economy. They'll be working to improve the neighborhood," Crowley said.
One block from Ebrard's apartment building in the trendy neighborhood of La Condesa, Carmelo Morales expects parking meters will soon bounce him out of a job.
"I'll work here until that final day but I don't know what then," he said near the end of a 12 hour day that typically nets 250 pesos, or about $20.
Morales left the rural state of Chiapas sixteen years ago to seek his fortune roughly 600 miles north where he laid claim to the corner that has become his second home.
Sun-tanned and wearing slicked-back hair, the 36-year-old said he does not have any skills but that he might stay in the car-service trade.
"If I don't park cars, I could just wash them," he said as he carried plastic buckets full of water across the street to scrub a sedan.
Reporting by Patrick Rucker and Caroline Stauffer; Editing by Patricia Reaney